Monday, June 9, 2014

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 2

Two more movies on Friday

First up was IVORY TOWER, a hard look at the state of American higher education. It first focuses on how we got to the state where college is so expensive. Short answer--what started as mainly philanthropic endeavors have become market-driven, treating students as customers and competing on fancy amenities rather than education  And since student loan debt was always considered to be "good" debt (I'm near the last class where that was still generally true) students are encouraged to go deeply in debt as an investment in their future earning potential. But student loan debt is turning out to be horrible--high interest, no bankruptcy protection, etc. (this is a horrible oversimplification, but it will work for this post.)

It then tackles the much harder problem of what to do about it. Here we find no easy answers. The free college model is...difficult. Famed Cooper Union, which for decades funded free education (paid for based on owning the ground beneath the Chrysler Building) now has to charge tuition after exorbitant construction costs coupled with losing a fortune in hedge funds. Online classes seem promising...until the results come in (locally, in fact, from SJSU) and incoming students who took the online remedial math classes failed in high percentages. The UnCollege movement has high hopes for "hacking" your education (they call it "hackademics.") But it seems to work for some students and not others. The fact is, on average students who go to real, live, in-person 4-year colleges and get their degree do much better than their non-degree-having peers (at least, in terms of lifetime earnings. Whether that's a good metric for "doing better" can be subjected to a lot of debate.)

I don't know any easy answers, and the movie presents a lot of ideas but likewise has no silver bullet. But the discussion does remind me of something I heard once about the word "philanthropy." Literally, it means "love of humanity." Which is really a very tricky concept. What does it mean to love humanity if everyone knows a great many individual people whom they don't love (or even outright hate?) And certainly love of humanity doesn't make you blind to the many, many faults of the human race in general. Well, it means a love for the potential of humanity. And the only way for humanity to reach that potential is through universal education. So you can only really call yourself a philanthropist if your charity goes to education--the building or improving of schools. If you build a hospital, shelter the homeless, feed the starving, etc. you can call yourself a humanitarian. But only if you build schools can you call yourself a philanthropist.


Next up was a short and feature about marginalized people, perhaps self-marginalized. LIFE UNDER THE BRIDGE is a brief look at Ron 'Pepper' Brown. Artist, homeless, HIV-positive. He lives under the 6th Street Bridge in Los Angeles, and gives us a brief view of his life and the small band of friends and supporters who help him survive.

And then the feature, FREELOAD, about honest-to-God modern day hobos riding the rails. Ponyboy, his girlfriend Rachel, Blackbird, and the brothers Skrappe and Christmas, feeling that irresistible draw for travel and no-budget adventure. Director Daniel Skaggs (who certainly has a bit of the hobo vibe himself) joined them for travels for about a year, IIRC. And he presents a fairly romantic take on a lifestyle that I, myself, could never appreciate. Pretty fascinating, but my favorite part was afterwards when Skaggs was imploring people to vote for the audience award and vote #1 for him. I had to explain that the voting is "number of stars" so 1 is worst and 5 is best. So in jest he said he'll have to make me an associate producer of the film. At least, I assume it was in jest. If this shows up later with Jason Wiener listed as associate producer, just know that explaining how to vote at Docfest is the entirety of my contribution.

Total Running Time: 171 minutes
My Total Minutes: 365,075
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